On Monday, Kenya’s Supreme Court resoundingly rejected challenges to the August 9 election, affirming the victory of William Ruto and his United Democratic Alliance. Shortly thereafter, outgoing Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta broke his long silence about the electoral outcome. Although Ruto was Kenyatta’s Deputy President, Kenyatta had supported Raila Odinga for the presidency, and his displeasure with the electoral outcome was clear. Addressing Kenyans, he promised a smooth transfer of power, but repeatedly urged citizens to “scrutinize the coherence” of the truth presented by institutions like the judiciary.
It might have done Kenya’s democracy more good if Kenyatta had couched his vision of civic duty not in suspicion of a judiciary that appears to have made an unbiased decision based on the facts, but rather in a call for greater civic engagement committed to holding new leadership accountable for its actions, regardless of how one voted. The Kenyan election is decided, but the jury is still out on what Ruto’s victory will mean for Kenya’s fight against corruption, which lands second only to the economy on the list of priorities Kenyan citizens identified for Afrobarometer. Ruto cast himself as a champion of the working class interested in fighting “state capture,” but his history suggests he is an unlikely anti-corruption champion. His running mate, Deputy President-elect Rigathi Gachagua, has faced serious corruption charges, and was recently ordered to forfeit nearly $1.7 million dollars in what a court determined were ill-gotten gains. Equally unpredictable is just what a Ruto administration will mean for human rights and the rule of law. It’s worth remembering that the International Criminal Court (ICC) declined to acquit him on charges of crimes against humanity relating to the post-election violence of 2007 and 2008 when the case fell apart largely due to witness tampering.
What is no longer in question is the frustration with the status quo on display in Kenya and elsewhere on the continent. Ruto was perceptive in harnessing popular dissatisfaction with Kenyatta’s government, emphasizing Odinga’s close association with the incumbent in this last electoral cycle to characterize himself as an outsider and his ascension from deputy president to president as a breath of fresh air. Across the region, demands for change are diminishing the advantages of incumbency and challenging conventional political wisdom. Even in Angola, a country in which it has long been difficult to distinguish between the ruling party and the state itself, last month’s elections were far closer than any the country has experienced before, despite the substantial capacity of the government to tilt the playing field to its advantage.
For the United States, which is deeply invested in Kenya’s success and stability, the only way forward is to take the duly-elected Ruto administration at its word, wish it well in its professed plans to strengthen the economy and address inequality, and find meaningful ways to help. But it will be equally important to continue supporting Kenya’s civil society, democratic resilience, and the connective tissue of accountability between the governing and the governed. The disappointing voter turnout numbers in Kenya suggest that many citizens simply did not believe that the electoral outcome mattered much, or that any of their choices offered a compelling vision for the country’s future. But democracies require constant vigilance. Should the new administration find it harder to deliver change than to promise it, it will take an organized and energized public to ensure the Kenyan people retain their capacity to choose leadership that meets the moment.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.